Sport of the 'slightly odd' Birders: Every year, devoted members of the Howard County Bird Club slog through a local landfill for a chance to spot a rare specimen.

February 28, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Oblivious to the pelting rain and whipping winds of a sudden winter squall, the 14 birders home in on their prized prey. The cry rises: "He's in the trash."

The winsome image of bird-watching as a gentle pastime spent in sun-dappled forests is a far cry from the Howard County Bird Club's annual foray last weekend through the Alpha Ridge Landfill's yellow-brown mud littered with hundreds of plastic shopping bags.

"Right near the black bag," another booted and Gore-Texed birder shouts as a dozen others scramble with binoculars and telescopes into a line along a mud bank at the Marriottsville landfill.

And which one of the thousand black plastic bags of garbage would that be? "The one with the most vegetable-looking trash in it," the birder clarifies.

Aha. There he is. Sighting the glaucous gull -- a large gull with a pink-and-black bill -- is an avian moment, the payoff for braving household waste, foul weather and odors.

This might not have been the rarest of sightings, but it was a solid find in what can be an aggressive, and smelly, sport. It's a sport in which players talk excitedly of particularly fruitful dumps and sewage-treatment plants.

After all, as the "Show Boat" tune could have said, birds not only gotta fly, they also gotta eat. And the waste that humans produce often provides a more stable diet than berries on bushes in a pristine forest.

So serious birders often find themselves peering over bags of trash or ponds of sewage. Sometimes they travel thousands of miles for the chance to add a rare notch on their birding belt.

Birders acknowledge that true dedication to their sport probably means you are, well, a few feathers short of a tail.

"It's uncomfortable. The scenery is bleak, and for this we spend thousands of dollars," says Dennis Coskren, a 54-year-old geologist who recalls a week's stay in an Alaskan village to see Asiatic birds. "You have to be slightly odd."

Coskren has scouted for birds in the dumps of Texas towns and along the Rio Grande at the Mexico border, trying to add to the more than 1,000 species he's spotted. The only ones there were smugglers and illegal immigrants, he says.

To which fellow birder Chuck Stirrat of Ellicott City quips: "What do we know of danger?"

Indeed, danger may lurk at this landfill, believed by some to be leaking toxic chemicals. That causes little worry this day. Says Jo Solem, 60, of North Laurel: "We go to places other people simply don't."

Far-flung destinations

Last month, two of the Alpha Ridge birders -- Darius and Paula Ecker of Columbia -- flew to Boston when they read on the Internet that a rare boreal owl, usually hard to find in its pine forest habitat, had somehow landed in a downtown tree.

The Eckers -- who have been bird-watchers for seven years, hTC since a wild bird center opened across the street from their home -- say they use almost all their vacation time for birding. Their next stop is California and then Arizona.

"I'm closing in on 500 species," says Darius Ecker, 43, a computer programmer.

Ecker's determination reflects the nature of bird-watching as a sport: Dedicated birders compete, mostly against themselves, by tallying how many species of birds they can spot within geographic or time boundaries -- the county, state, country or world; or a day, month, year or lifetime.

By those standards, the highest feat within the Alpha Ridge group was achieved by Jean Farrell, who tallied 307 species in one year -- just in Maryland.

"That's impressive," Coskren says of Farrell's 1994 accomplishment, believed to be a record.

Birders carry lists in their fanny packs and some check off the birds as they spot them; others wait until they get home. Critical to this is a picture-and-map-filled bird book, which almost all keep within reach.

"Bird-watching is kind of like a giant game of 'Concentration,' " says Elayne Metter, 46, a homemaker from Catonsville. "Instead of matching cards, you match the picture to the bird."

And sure enough, as the birders trek over the landfill, someone suddenly calls out that a rough-legged hawk is in view.

"Who wanted that?" the voice bellows out, the only sound apart from the constant beep-beep of garbage trucks dumping their loads.

Metter climbs behind her minitelescope, called a spotter scope. "Thank you," she yells back.

'Life bird'

This is the first time Metter has seen the rodent-eating hawk with a white tail and broad black stripe -- and, in bird-watching terms, that's a "life bird."

Sighting just one rarely seen bird can make a trip a success. On this outing, about three birds in that category were spotted -- and the glaucous gull, which seldom ventures into Howard County, made the day at the dump a complete hit.

But the best part, the birders say, is adventuring with friends -- albeit at times amid a trash heap. As Maud Banks, president of the 300-member Howard bird club, puts it: "Would you stand in the middle of a stinking dump if you weren't fun?"

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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